Phosphorus is not one of the most common elements in Earth’s crust and mantle, yet it essential for all life, plant and animal. Phosphorus makes up our bones and teeth, and importantly, phosphorus comprises DNA.

Even though plants require more nitrogen and oxygen than they do phosphorus, phosphorus is often the limiting nutrient; the amount of available phosphorus determines the amount of plant growth and development. Where phosphorus is plentiful, plants thrive, and vice versa. However, plants cannot absorb limitless amounts of phosphorus. Phosphorus not used by plants remains in the soil or runs off in streams and groundwater.

In a given area of land, plants grow and remove phosphorus from the soil. But then those plants die, and the phosphorus is their tissues is recycled back into the soil. When land is farmed, plants absorb the phosphorus, but then the plants are removed to be eaten. Because this reduces the amount of soil phosphorus available, humans started adding phosphorus fertilizer to soils.

Some of the fertilizer was organic, from ground up bones or mined guano (bat dung). But humans then started mining phosphorus from both igneous and sedimentary (but mostly sedimentary) rock. The use of inorganic phosphate fertilizer (aka chemical fertilizer) greatly altered the phosphorus cycle.

Phosphorus in rock is pretty insoluble and thus not directly available to plants. In nature, rock phosphate can become soluble (and available to plants) either by chemical weathering or through the actions of certain types of plants. The solubility also depends on rock type and the pH of the soil; phosphorus is most soluble when contained in sedimentary rocks as opposed to igneous rock, and when soil pH is between 5.5 and 7.2.

Therefore, spreading phosphate rock on fields had little effect on plant growth. However, in the mid-1800s, chemists discovered that mixing sulfuric acid with phosphate rock would make a soluble fine powder called superphosphate; this discovery turned phosphate rock into the valuable fertilizer it is today. A caveat, however, is that once fertilizer is applied to the soil, the phosphorus not absorbed by plants can adhere to soil or clay particles, and become an insoluble solid once again.

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